disappointment signage

Once I was working with the CEO of a large company in Dallas and asked her what she did over a holiday weekend. She shared that she had four nephews – all under age 10 – come for a visit.

When I asked how she could manage all of that, she said, “It was easy. I just let them know what my expectations were, and they got to choose whether or not they met them.” Huh? How could it be that easy? Could this woman leap tall buildings in a single bound? Did she have a magical lasso that made people tell the truth? Was she a wizard?

She assured me that anyone could do this and proceeded to explain how the concept came to be. Several years of frustrating visits led her to an idea. She was tired of micromanaging the kids’ behavior all weekend and wanted a more enjoyable and relaxed visit. She got a poster board, wrote their names across the top and stapled a $5 bill under each of their names. Then there was a list of rules:

  •  No jumping off the roof
  •  No swearing
  •  No yelling
  •  No biting
  •  No screaming
  •  No peeing in the pool

If any of the boys broke a rule, all of them lost a quarter. At the end of the visit, they got to keep however much money they had left. That was it!

She explained that at first, it was a challenge. After the first hour, they had to add a new rule: no tattling! By the end of the first day, the kids were actually policing each other and making sure they were all following the rules. She believed the kids didn’t meet her expectations on previous visits, not because they didn’t want to or couldn’t, but because they didn’t know what the expectations were.

If you subscribe to my philosophy that adults are just big versions of kids, it stands to reason that if this concept worked for kids, it is sure to work for adults. What if all of this time we have been getting frustrated with people for something we can prevent?

To ensure you are setting clear expectations (whether personally or professionally), try the following strategies:

1. Know what you want before you get frustrated: This is often the most difficult step. Many times, we haven’t clarified in our own minds what we want, yet we assume others are being thoughtless or selfish when they don’t satisfy our needs.

2. Clearly communicate these expectations and, when necessary, ensure understanding: Simply saying, “Do you understand?”
is not ensuring understanding. Whether you ask the person to paraphrase, summarize, or re-explain, it is helpful to hear the other person reflect what they heard, to make sure you are on the same page

3. Define your desired outcome: What do you want the end product or behavior to look like? How would you define success?

4. Explain what you do want, rather than what you don’t: We have a tendency to complain about the actions and behaviors we don’t like, when in reality, we haven’t explained the actions and behaviors we would like to see.

5. Reward the positive and coach the negative: Whether at work or at home, remember that people repeat behavior that gets attention. If your expectations are met, make sure you say thank you or show appreciation. If your expectations are not met, before assuming the person intentionally disappointed you, make sure you communicated what you wanted clearly.

Remember, it is up to you to set and communicate expectations. Every time you find yourself getting frustrated with someone this week, ask yourself if you set clear expectations and communicated them effectively. If not, take a deep breath, step back, and try again.

For more on how to improve your relationships, check out my new book “52Strategies for Life, Love & Work: Transforming your life one week at a time“.


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